Understanding Pilgrimage

One of the great issues we are tackling in the course of our journey is this question of pilgrimage. On this page, we want to discuss these issues as they arise. We expect that our answers to these questions will continually evolve through the course of our experience, however it is important for us to have some provisional understanding of our undertaking.

Defining Pilgrimage

A Pilgrimage is, fundamentally, a journey undertaken with the key purpose of drawing the pilgrim nearer to God. Whatever other goals may exist in the journey (a destination or an itinerary, for instance) are subordinate to this central, experiential and existential motivation.

Of course, we have other categories for experiential travel. Tourism, for instance, is all about going famous places and seeing famous things. There is a history of "bumming around" that involves drifting from place to place for no other reason to see new places. "Voluntourism," travel for the purpose of doing volunteer work, is becoming increasingly popular. Scholars roam the world and fill bookshelves with the strange things they see and hear. Missionaries form institutions to uplift persons of countries far away. These journeys may even have their own existential components.

Yet pilgrimage involves still a different posture of soul from any of these activities. It is certainly possible to find meaning in one's activities without coming closer to God. The pilgrim is seeking, not only meaning, but deep, metaphysical reactions to his ambulations.

Selecting a Destination for Pilgrimage

You do not select the destination. The destination selects you.

As cryptic as it may sound, this is actually the way things work. The call to pilgrimage is experienced as a intense, inexpressible, inexplicable yearning. Pilgrimage begins when we listen to that yearning, take it seriously and understand it as an anonymous message from God, and begin to seek an external manifestation of our pilgrim journey.

For us, the choice to go to India did not happen all at once, but came in little snatches here and there, until it was clear to us that India was where we needed to go.

Making Preparations for Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage works contrary to our human instincts to reach for stability and security. Above all else, the pilgrim must be ready to leave the assurances of everyday life and experiences, and dive headlong into situations that are both utterly unfamiliar and ripe with holiness.

It is among the objectives of pilgrimage, ultimately, to find that our stability and assurance is in God, rather than in the transience of the world. As we remove our securities in the world and place them in God, then we have already begun to find our way.

Renunciation and Sacrifice

Being open to the call of God necessitates being unburdened by much material wealth and responsibility. Just as Jesus instructed his followers to go out into the world without gold or silver, without a bag or extra coat or sandals, so too the pilgrim should not stringently occupy himself with making provision for his journey. Rather he should trust God that the way will be made known for him, and he will be provided for.

If we are burdened down by our baggage, how can we travel? If we are surrounded by noise, how can we hear the still small, voice of God? Therefore, as move through the world, seeking God, we must carefully and intentionally free our souls from their burdens.

There are practical reasons for this renunciation, even outside of these theological motivations. As human beings, we are simply more satisfied and more creative when we are called upon to make the best out of a situation with limited resources, rather than being able to control all the variables of our experience. As GK Chesterton once remarked, "The rich choose their adventures. The poor have their adventures chosen for them." Pilgrimage is a way of embracing poverty in order to embrace adventure.

Dabbling in Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual disciplines help us to keep our eyes and ears open to the experience of the Divine, and help us to become rooted in the presence of God.

In the course of pilgrimage, spiritual disciplines are as necessary for keeping our inner journey on track as our steps are for keeping us moving forward in the physical world.

Pilgrim Literature

The Way of a Pilgrim

This marvelous little book, anonymously penned in nineteenth century Russia, is a tremendous spiritual classic. Unfortunately, it is not available online.

The Voyages of St. Brendan the Navigator

St. Brendan was an Irish abbot of the fourth century, who led his monks on a pilgrimage by sea through the North Atlantic ocean. His journeys are often hailed as a bold instance of early exploration, but their primary function was internal.

Pilgrim George

Pilgrim George is one of the few full-time pilgrims in the Western world. He wears a handmade denim habit and sandals made of tire, and spends most of his year on a walking pilgrimage.

  • To what extent is it legitimate to make a Christian pilgrimage in a "Hindu" place?

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